Why Australia Is Burning

  • Date: 08/01/20
  • James Morrow, The Wall Street Journal

Bush fires have many causes. The climate-change narrative is a gross oversimplification.

Fire Crews monitor bush fires in Mallacoota, Australia, Jan. 2. PHOTO: DARRIAN TRAYNOR/GETTY IMAGES

I’ll never forget my first Christmas in Australia. The year was 2001. The mercury hovered around 100 degrees Fahrenheit—you don’t get a white Christmas in Sydney. From the balcony of an apartment overlooking Bondi Beach, I watched the sky turn from a bright blue to an ashen gray to a brackish brown as smoke poured down from over the hill behind us. What would later be known as the Black Christmas fires raged in the Blue Mountains, 50 or so miles inland.

Climate change hadn’t become the catchall explanation for natural disasters. My hosts, who grew up with bad fire seasons, shook their heads and served the turkey.

Nearly 20 years later, much of the eastern half of the country has again been hit with bad bush fires.

The current round of blazes started late last year. It has charred at least 15 million acres and killed more than two dozen Australians, including brave volunteer firefighters who rush into the inferno to save homes and lives.

The climate-change narrative grossly oversimplifies bush fires, whose causes are as complex as their recurrence is predictable:

Australia is in the midst of one of its regular droughts.

Byzantine environmental restrictions prevent landholders from clearing scrub, brush and trees. State governments don’t do their part to reduce the fuel load in parks. Last November a former fire chief in Victoria slammed that state’s “minimalist approach” to hazard-reduction burning in the off-season. That complaint is heard across the country.

As for the proximate cause, anything from a lightning strike to a spark from a power tool to arson can touch off a conflagration. More than 180 people have been arrested for allegedly starting blazes since the start of the current bush-fire season.

Yet the narrative that has been built around the fires and broadcast around the world points the finger only at man-made climate change—and specifically at Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Activists insist that if his government had an effective “climate policy,” it would somehow help snuff out the flames. Never mind that Australia emits only around 1/77th of the world’s man-made carbon dioxide. The country’s complete deindustrialization wouldn’t budge the global thermostat.

In radical corners of Australian social media, activists play out fantasies of the government’s dissolution and replacement with some sort of revolutionary people’s climate assembly taking power (surely, they’ll get it right this time). On Monday a parliamentarian from the Australian Greens tweeted about one day holding “climate trials” to deal with conservative politicians. […]

Yet it’s unlikely the country will be forced into some radical climate program. Australians understand that their climate has always been one of the deadliest in the world, and that the country’s modern history is signposted with huge and deadly bush-fire seasons. Being a pragmatic, realistic lot, they know that no act of economic self-harm can do anything to change the weather.

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